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Sunday, April 17, 2016

Ramps and Remembrance

Ten years ago today, my dad breathed his last.  His spirit finally left a body that had relentlessly wound down from the paralysis of ALS.  After a few months of a scratchy voice and an occasional stumble, from diagnosis to death took 18 months.  He was 71.

It was Easter weekend, this weekend back in 2006. We were all together in Virginia, and just as most of us came out of the Good Friday service my mom called to say hurry back.  He was ready to say goodbye.  And he did, sleeping then all the way through until Sunday night.  There was a thunderstorm around midnight, and he left us.  What a gift, to enact the rhythm of Easter, in a spiritual resurrection awaiting the final "we shall all be changed" restoration of perishable to imperishable.

That final gift to all of us who mourned merely completed an entire lifetime of giving.  My dad was the essence of generosity.  I think growing up on the edge of poverty as the youngest of 15 kids accentuated his pleasure in giving to others as his small construction company began to prosper.  He was practical, hard-working, NEVER in a hurry (much to our frustration at times), mischievous, proud of his daughters, relaxed, absolutely loyal.  He steadily lived by common sense sprinkled with extravagant surprises.

And though his business thrived in the bustle of Loudoun county transforming from small farms into a DC suburb, he and my mom always embraced their Appalachian roots.  We have this sabbatical home because he bought two farms near his family's original cabin-in-the-woods homestead. All his life he spent weekends, summers, vacations, all the time he could, back in this hollow.  And one of the things I heard about from him, and his brothers, was the legendary ramp, and the Pickens Ramp Festival.

Now, my dad and his brothers were big teasers, they had robust senses of humor.  So I kind of wonder if the ramp is something people talked about but didn't really eat (like lutefisk with the Scandinavians, which I naively learned the hard way when I married in).  Ramps are a wild spring green onion, foraged from the woods, a pungent celebration of seasonal survival and the promise of summer.  Eating large quantities, particularly raw, is said to lead to a notorious body odor.   My aunt did tell me that teachers would send kids home from school in April if they stank, so my dad's brothers tried to collect and consume as many as possible!  Small towns in West Virginia have dedicated celebrations of this vegetable.  And I always heard about the one in Pickens, which I understood to be further into the hills, the place the railroad came and went to.

The Pickens festival was yesterday, on this anniversary weekend.  And at a thrift shop in CA I had found a "ride to defeat ALS" bike jersey.  I've never had a bike jersey, because I've never been such an athlete, but I bought it.  So the idea formed, let's ride bikes to Pickens, eat the authentic local dinner prepared at the American Legion Hall, and ride back. A tribute to my dad, time to breathe in the countryside he loved, to celebrate his courageous exhausting months of struggle against ALS.  To taste our first ramps.

Only I didn't actually check the mileage until yesterday morning.  I vaguely thought it was more than ten . . . but 27 was kind of a shocker.  It was such a good plan though.  Scott and I used to bike 20 miles of prairie trails a quarter of a century ago when we were residents, young, and living in Chicago, if we ever got a Saturday intersection of days off.  Scott was appropriately skeptical, but I was predictably overly confident.  It will be fun!  And I figured we could pay someone with a pickup truck for a ride back, or Scott could ride back and pick me up in the car.

And so we set off just after noon.  The route climbed 3000 feet into the mountains, following ridges and dipping by streams, winding by hilltop churches and cemeteries.  Classic WV countryside, small farms and trailer homes, chickens and dogs, and long stretches of forest.  Problem was, most of the roads were gravel, and our progress was slow.  Seven deer startled, leaping in front of us.  A red-headed woodpecker bobbed between trees over my head; a fat bumblebee crossed an inch off the dirt.  We saw a red-tailed hawk settle into a tree over a grassy hollow, and paused to marvel at a beaver dam.  The final five miles nearly killed me, a long long endless gravel ascent.  But we made it to Pickens.  Which, it turns out, is not much more than an old RR station, a minuscule post office, two stores, and the American Legion Hall.

The dinner consisted of massive servings of ham, cornbread, fried potatoes, apple sauce, brown beans, cole slaw . . and ramps. We sat at long tables and talked to our grey-haired neighbors.  (Two of whom, it seemed, were just there for the social meal and did not wish to consume any ramps lest they offend their friends at church the next morning).  A cute little girl kept filling our styrofoam cups with pink lemonade.  We ate as much as our weary bodies could stand, and chatted with some people about alternative routes.  I felt
like I needed pavement to make it back even part-way before dark.

 Did I mention there was ZERO cell phone reception the entire route?  But my map worked, and at the encouragement of a guy who wandered helpfully to us as we stared at our phones, I elected a longer but more-traveled loop back through Helvitia.  Scott, who can do a 50-60 mile day much faster on his own than with me, decided to plow back the same way we came, thinking he'd have the best chance of making it home by dark and then he'd come find me with the car.

Long story short, we survived, and my longer-but-more-pavement route gave me enough speed to be within 4 miles of home by the time Scott looped back with the car.  The sun was just resting on the horizon in an 8 pm sphere of pink slanting through the road dust.  He said, you've got less than a mile until the long hill down from Big Bend, you can practically coast home, you can do it.  So I did.

So it was a day to remember my dad, to feel weakness and weariness and pray.  To inhale the beauty of a place he loved.  To eat a meal which for him would be the menu of Heaven. To hit physical limits, as he did, and press on.

Today is also my nephew's 18th birthday.  An while the take-me-home-country-roads tribute to my dad was happening here, he was going to his Senior prom in my dad's antique Thunderbird, which was an equally fitting tribute that would have delighted my dad.  So many times over the last decade, we think, dad would have loved to see this grandchild play rugby, that one graduate from Yale, this one in state-level special olympics, that one's art show, this one in uniform, that one winning a soccer game, this one's love for cars.  At the risk of overstepping my aunt privileges, I will end with Noah's photo by the car, because that would have made my dad so happy:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

A truly amazing man, Tom Aylestock. He and your mom had a tremendous impact on our lives as they invited us to their church in Vienna, VA and took us on many occasions to their home, a young couple from Oregon, one serving in the military and the other teaching kindergarten at Fairfax Christian School in the late 60's. I was just thinking about him today as I heard about a lady who had been diagnosed with ALS and was asking for prayer. The last years were hard, but the Lord was glorified, and I know that Tom has had a wonderful existence the last ten years being in the presence of his Savior.

What special people, Tom and Judy Aylestock!

Gary Brownlee